Naturally occurring defective interfering RNAs have been found in 4 of 14 coronavirus species. They range in size from 2.2 kb to approximately 25 kb, or 80% of the 30-kb parent virus genome. The large DI RNAs do not in all cases appear to require helper virus for intracellular replication and it has been postulated that they may on their own function as agents of disease. Coronavirus DI RNAs appear to arise by internal deletions (through nonhomologous recombination events) on the virus genome or on DI RNAs of larger size by a polymerase strand-switching (copy-choice) mechanism. In addition to their use in the study of virus RNA replication and virus assembly, coronavirus DI RNAs are being used in a major way to study the mechanism of a high-frequency, site-specific RNA recombination event that leads to leader acquisition during virus replication (i.e., the leader fusion event that occurs during synthesis of subgenomic mRNAs, and the leader-switching event that can occur during DI RNA replication), a distinguishing feature of coronaviruses (and arteriviruses). Coronavirus DI RNAs are also being engineered as vehicles for the generation of targeted recombinants of the parent virus genome.